“Access and Inclusion are Two Sides of the Same Goal”

Meet the Curator Series – Interview with Rama Lakshmi

What does cultural access imply and how can a museum curate a community’s fight for justice? Nilofar Ansher of Accessibility in Museums interviews museum curator Rama Lakshmi, who has worked with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum. Rama is involved with setting up the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ traveling exhibition and museum, a first-of- its-kind memorial project in independent India where “a community co-curates the story of its ongoing struggle for justice.”

Note: The Bhopal gas tragedy was a gas leak incident in India and is considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. It occurred on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh (central India). Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals, leading to the death of thousands of residents and permanently disabling scores of them, including pregnant women. (Source: Wikipedia). Read more about it.

Rama Lakshmi

Image: Rama Lakshmi is involved in co-curating the traveling exhibition and museum of Bhopal gas tragedy survivors, which aims to highlight the transformation of the survivors “from victims to warriors” over the last 28 years.

Nilofar: Take us through your background as a museum professional and the projects you have been involved in.

Rama: My introduction to museum work in the United States was in the area of social movements and social history. At the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, I did curatorial research on the Disability Rights Movement in Missouri, and also conducted a series of oral histories with  disability rights activists who had taken part in and were inspired by the Independent Living Movement. This was part of the preparatory work for an exhibition on the movement.

The three people’s movements that I have studied in-depth are – the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the American disability rights movement and the Canadian feminist movement. Social movements interest me and I am particularly focused on their curatorial potential and portrayal strategies.

Nilofar: How did you come to be involved with the Bhopal gas tragedy exhibit?

Rama: During one of my visits to Bhopal (capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh), I learnt that the gas survivors and activists were opposed to the Madhya Pradesh government’s plan to build a grand memorial at the site of the Union Carbide factory. Their position was that the government does not have the moral right to memorialize the events because it was complicit in the injustice meted out over the years. Survivors said only they have the moral right to build it.

For a museologist, the question of the moral right to memory and commemoration is very interesting. That’s how the discussions began about working with the community of survivors to build a museum to the Bhopal story… The exhibition will chronicle their journey from being victims to warriors. So, portraying the tragedy is as important as depicting the struggle for justice.

We formed The Remember Bhopal Trust in 2011 with the goal of keeping the history of the struggle alive in public memory and launch a series of commemorative projects. The work began in January 2011 and we have collected artifacts, oral histories, photographs, protest songs, posters, and slogans that form an integral part of the collective memory of the movement. Families have given to the museum project objects that are their last tangible link to those who died. Many others have recounted their harrowing tales of survival and fierce struggle. We have collected artifacts that are not just limited to trauma memory, but also protest-related objects. The museum’s narrative will be shaped by these stories and objects. The exhibition will chronicle their journey from being victims to warriors. So, portraying the tragedy is as important as depicting the struggle for justice.

We are trying to raise funds for the museum now. In its first phase, it will be a traveling exhibition that will travel across India to other sites of environmental struggles for a year (See end of post for details on how to contribute).

Nilofar: How do you go about representing something as abstract as injustice and suffering?

Rama: My personal belief is that memorials are sites of homage and quiet reflection. Sometimes they are sites of pilgrimage too. But museums are story-telling institutions, they force you to enter the personal stories of struggle and engage with issues. Justice is not an abstract notion to portray if you look at it through the stories and symbols of discrimination and pain. This is why I use oral history as a central core of all my museum projects. The Bhopal survivors view the museum to be a tool in their continuing struggle, and not just a memorial that freezes their story in history. It will be an active and dynamic site for remembering, reminding and also mobilizing.

Nilofar: What about the people who were injured and disabled due to the chemical leak – can their corporeal realities find a space in the exhibit?

Rama: In Bhopal, there is already such an exhibition in the medical college – with a row of aborted fetuses in jars exhibited as medical specimens. But our portrayal and context will be different; the physical disability caused by the gas exposure and the toxic water contamination belongs to the story of the ongoing struggle for medical compensation, environmental remediation and corporate accountability.

Nilofar: From a historical standpoint, we don’t see representation of disability across any cultural, social or public institutions. It feels as if disability as a social continuum is ignored. What does that say about our sense of self, of our idea of being human and selective representation in institutional settings?  

Rama: People with disability are seen as the “other”, the discourse for disability rights, access and independence is absent from our cultural and educational institutions. I have worked in museum projects where every time I mention the word “access”, the standard response has been, “But the disabled don’t come to our museum in any significant numbers, why make the investment for such small numbers?” I tell them that people living with disabilities do not come because their museums are inaccessible and shut them out. The other response of museums is to take children with disabilities on an annual school-sponsored guided tour of their galleries, under their “special ed” and “inclusion” projects. On such days, ramps are installed, galleries are cleared, wheelchairs are kept on stand-by, and touchable replica objects are displayed. Such programs further stigmatize and segregate the community and re-emphasize their “otherness”. Instead, what we need to pursue is the inclusive, barrier-free principle of “Universal Design” – which is an idea where stigma and segregation dissolve.

Read related news: India’s National Museum goes Tactile for Blind Visitors

Nilofar: In India, accessibility and inclusion to cultural spaces receive the least attention in the ‘hierarchy of needs’ benchmarked for citizens – food, clothing and shelter are a given, followed by education and employment, but where does entertainment, leisure or culture fit in? In this scenario, how do we include accessible measures?

Rama: Cultural spaces must not  be viewed just as leisure and entertainment. Museums must go beyond just installing ramps and building elevators. Accessibility must be central to exhibit design, display strategy, labeling, placing of artifacts, lighting, public programming, docent-tours, educational material and so on. But most importantly, inclusion is achieved when stories and experiences that have been left out are brought in through the museum doors. That is what our Missouri project was: we went out to curate an exhibition about the disability rights movement and contextualized it as a civil rights movement.

For me, access obviously goes beyond physical barriers, even though those are the most fundamental ways of defining it. In museums, a field that I know well and work in, access and inclusion are two sides of the same goal or challenge. Am I able to enter the museum and navigate the space and galleries without barriers (if I am on a wheelchair), is one basic question. Then I ask, once I am inside, am I able to view the objects, read the labels? How are the lighting? What is the height of the exhibits and labels? What is the font size of the signage? Do they have labels and text panels in Braille? Do they have audio guides? How are the exhibits laid out? Does it give me enough space to maneuver between artifacts? Are the text labels written in dense, inaccessible format and language? Are the docent trained to give story-telling tours for older people, people with disability, pregnant women, children, foreigners, children with disabilities, under-served communities, unlettered and unschooled people, and so on? What are the cognitive barriers that the museum erects?

Nilofar: How do we understand the concept of ‘access’ – does it only comprise spatial navigation or is there a political dimension to this? Would you say that access to culture has other, more nuanced readings to it?

Rama: There are many ways of approaching the idea of access, and this is reflected not only in physical settings, but also in the institutional policies and the people running the show. Are the museum staff/gallery guard friendly and welcoming or are they looking down upon the visitor? Are they elitist? There are non-verbal barriers too – it is hidden in the quiet, cold demeanor and attitude of the staff. I think this is what you refer to in your question on “art galleries and museums as highbrow spaces”. Sure, museums are considered by many as elitist institutions – even if the ticket is just Rs 10 (0.18 US$). Movies are not considered elitist even though the ticket costs ten to twenty times more , in the metros! Perhaps this is a simplistic example, but worth considering. Is entertainment regarded as more inclusive than culture and cultural education? And why is that? What about melas (fairs)? They too are dispensers of culture, but not at all regarded inaccessible. The answer is quite obvious.

Having said that, a predominant share of museum visitors in India have always been and continue to be rural visitors who come to cities on the annual darshans (tourist tours). So, I am not sure I agree with you about museums per se being elitist institutions. It is much more nuanced than thick, black-white   impenetrable categories. Quite obviously, the word ‘access’ cannot be applied or understood in a narrow sense.

Now coming to the concept of inclusion.   For me, as a museologist, the word also applies to whose stories get told in our museums – not merely what kind of visitors are allowed in. A simple example, in a gallery which displays  ancient pottery, how about a museum educator including stories about potters, present-day potters community, their struggles? After all, the potters were the first literate  communities of the world. Why not turn the prism differently so that the visitors can walk away with a well-rounded understanding of the subject?

In the Apartheid struggle, there was a campaign slogan that I keep harking back to; it said, “Nothing About Us Without Us”. This campaign slogan was borrowed by the disability rights activists during their struggle  in the United States. I borrow that slogan and apply it to my work in museums and in the oral history space. Whose stories are told? Who has the right over the story-telling? Whose versions are portrayed in our museums? What is the curatorial ideology about sharing the space with disparate and differing voices? How do I restore curatorial voice to those whose stories have been usurped by academic historians and grand meta-narratives about nationhood?

For me, this slogan goes into the heart of museum profession, and for that matter, to the heart of my Bhopal museum work.

Rama Lakshmi is a museum studies graduate; she has worked with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Missouri History Museum. In New Delhi; she has consulted with the National Museum and the National Rail Museum in New Delhi; and has conducted oral histories in the United States and India. Currently, she is working with the Bhopal survivor groups to build a community-curated museum. She tweets as @RamaNewDelhi 

To donate to the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ traveling exhibition and museum, you can direct deposit or wire transfer your donations to:
Name of The Account Holder: Remember Bhopal Trust | Account Number: 3227002100047912 | Bank: Punjab National Bank

Hamidia Road, Bhopal – 462001, India
Branch: Bhopal, Hamidia Road
Contact Phone and Name: 0755-2740126,0439 / K L Luhana
IFSC Code: PUNB0122200
MICR Code: 462024006

You can also post your cheque for “Remember Bhopal Trust’ to: 
Remember Bhopal Trust
44, Sant Kanwar Ram Nagar,
Berasia Road, Bhopal  462 001,
Madhya Pradesh, India

This is the first interview in the ‘Meet the Curator’ series that focuses on museum professionals who have engaged with accessibility and inclusion in their work. Follow us on Twitter @a11yInMuseums


What does Access to Culture Imply?

Two wheelchair users, a man and a young boy, in a museum

accessible adj.
1. Easily approached or entered.
2. Easily obtained
3. Easy to talk to or get along with
4. Easily swayed or influenced

Accessibility is the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility can be viewed as the “ability to access” and benefit from some system or entity. The concept often focuses on people with disabilities or special needs (such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and their right of access, enabling the use of assistive technology.

The consensus or generic idea of what accessibility implies is seen from the perspective of reducing barriers to accessibility. These are physical and socio-psychological barriers that hinder or inhibit persons living with disabilities to fully participate in society. We have now reached a stage where governments of the world are paying attention to these barriers – in the architectural, digital and social domains – and taking steps to ensure that accessibility becomes the primary, default step while conceptualizing spaces, geography and navigation.

The global Disability Rights Movements that mushroomed in the last three decades has shifted the focus from looking at disability as a medical paradigm to reframing it in the sociopolitical context of exclusion and rights. The rights-based approach guarantees that legal provisions and mandates are in place, be it in education, healthcare, financial services, employment or leisure, ensuring a least common denominator of requirements are available for not just persons with disabilities, but for people of all abilities.

In this context, when we talk about the basic elements required to pursue a good life, does society (public, legal institutions, governments, corporations) place leisure and fun last on the Hierarchy of Needs? Do we tend to focus rather exclusively on making available food, shelter, education, and employment at the cost of play, relaxation and outings? Is it assumed that persons with disabilities have much more pressing concerns to grapple with and so entertainment, visit to museums, art galleries, heritage sites, gardens and amusement parks are not priority areas for discussing inclusive policies? We see the same argument especially applicable in development work or international aid, where donors say that they are ready to fund a school or a hospital, but not a theatre, playground or cultural space for performance or art as these are not crucial to development or GDP.

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities puts the spotlight on this very assumption by highlighting the rights of the community towards Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. The Article repeats that access to and participation in cultural avenues and spaces, including leisure, sports, playgrounds, as well as cultural materials, including television programs, films, theatre and other cultural activities must be made available in accessible formats.

In real terms, television programs need to be telecast with captions so that the deaf and hard of hearing can understand serials and shows of any format (reality, fiction, game shows, music channels). This means that a live play (theatre) has provisions for captions on a digital screen above the stage, or sign language interpreters or a transcript of the play available for those who require it. When it comes to watching movies in a cinema hall, every film needs to be captioned in the national language of the country it is being screened in. When a person who is blind or Autistic or a wheelchair-user visits a museum, she should have the option of an accessible tour by having a guide or curator show her around. Is this practicable though? Not by a long short. So, what are the alternatives?

The first step is to begin with providing access before we go around to perfecting it. With the advent of digital communication devices, the idea of providing accessible public and cultural spaces is becoming more acceptable and do-able. Consider for instance, a museum or art gallery. With a pre-recorded audio tour on a CD or mp3 player, a blind visitor can experience the exhibit optimally. Braille signage also works and so would tactile exhibits where the user can touch the surfaces of a sculpture. But what if the exhibit on display is a book, or a painting or a piece of decorative furniture? Would mere description or touch help them “access” the object? To what levels do we consider ‘accessibility’ of an object, a physical space or a program? In this sense, we understand that even with physical ‘access’ to a painting, the material still remains inaccessible. Do we address this issue and if yes, how do we go about making every object, surface or event accessible?

Universal Design is a tricky business. At parks or playgrounds, we require not just wheelchair access, but also spaces where children of all abilities can freely explore natural environs, run, play, gather around, have relaxing corners and seating options. Can architects, landscape designers and Public Works Department ensure playground and parks that cater to children who might be deaf-blind, or have motor disabilities as well as provide “regular” areas for children who want their swings, slides and see-saws? If accessibility has to be universal (and uniform?) and guaranteed for every person, how do we go about designing and co-creating spaces that are inclusive for everyone and are yet not sectioned off and discreet?

I think we are so used to seeing public spaces fit a certain cookie-cutter model of fences, grass, mud and rides (or buildings that are necessarily designed with steps and staircase) that we haven’t yet developed an aesthetic for newer forms of play and leisure for the 21st century. Newer forms of physical activities and newer conceptualizations of the idea of ‘play’ have to be designed and curated, crowd-sourced from the public. Did kids see a park and then decide to play catch-catch or did the game always exist and parks evolved as a response to that game?

A question that concerns me is the idea that culture can be accessed only in institutionalized settings, that we need to visit a museum or an art gallery in order to participate in a cultural activity or internalize what culture means in a given regional or national setting. Aren’t parks and fairs also part of culture and therefore liable to the same discourse of shaping public sensibilities? In this scenario, access has two meanings: physical access to a place, which we can address by improving physical infrastructure, and second, the politics of access: where institutions and government place museums and art galleries as pre-eminent to a local park or playground – the latter are neglected, where as the former receive endowments. Do we automatically privilege these spaces and bring in the question of lack of access as posteriori?

Public parks and fairs are considered open spaces where there is no regulation. You don’t have a curator guiding your sensibilities of what is high art and what is folk. There is no question of authorship or authority: who designed the landscape, who affixed the fountain, who created the marble statues, how are these relevant, why are these elements considered necessary for leisure? It’s time that we revisit these spaces from the point of view of access and try to figure out why it has become so important that we gain entry to them.In conclusion and to summarize: what does access really mean when we talk about accessible culture? Is is physical access to a cultural space (a museum for instance), or are we referring to the aesthetics of access – where we democratize culture and make it available beyond institutional settings (in a subway, restaurant or playground), or is it about the politics of access: where certain sections of the public realize that they might not be able to enter an art gallery, because it is highbrow, at once relegating it ‘exclusive’ and therefore, exclusionary?

I would love to hear from my readers. Would you say a visit to a park or a museum is fraught with all these tensions, or is it as simple as providing persons with all abilities the fullest range of accessible material as the UN CRPD says.

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